LOS ANGELES — Two years ago, MLS teams hadn't heard very much about either Miles Robinson or Jeremy Ebobisse. Both were in high school at the time, and not close to causing a stir among professional scouts. Around that same time Abu Danladi was coming off an outstanding freshman season that had turned heads and convinced Major League Soccer officials he was a young player worth going after.
It took a few years, but Danladi finally took the stage at the MLS draft, and while an injury-hit junior season at UCLA may have taken some of the shine off his status as a top prospect, it wasn't enough to change Minnesota United's mind about him being worthy of the top pick.
"I don't think there's an MLS club who doesn't know Abu Danladi over the last three years," Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath told Goal. "Everybody's watched him. The reason we chose him is because he has the most upside of anybody in the draft. If everything comes to fruition, we think we're going to have one of the best young talents in MLS."
Danladi had become a bit of an afterthought during draft week, as rumors swirled of teams looking to trade up to select Syracuse defender Miles Robinson first overall. Ebobisse, a U.S. U-20 national team forward, also generated more attention than Danladi, especially after scoring a stunning goal on the only day he played at the MLS combine. Even young Akron winger Jonathan Lewis was generating more buzz during the week after earning MLS combine MVP honors.
None of that mattered to Minnesota United brass, who watched Danladi's work at the combine and saw the signs of a special player, even if he wasn't scoring goals during the weeklong showcase. The speed was there to see, as was the movement, and by draft day Minnesota had interviewed Danladi and been convinced he was too good a prospect to let go, even as trade offers poured in.
"It was going to take something exceptional to trade the pick," Heath told Goal. "One team offered us quite a lot of money and a player, the player wasn't what we were looking for. It was going to have to be nearly perfect for us to give up what we were getting.
"The outlying plus for us is the fact that his ceiling is so high," Heath said. "He's got really good runs now for a young guy. I like his pace, and his runs. He still has some stuff to work on, but he's got the one commodity nobody likes to play against, which is pace."
It was that lightning speed that made Danladi a top candidate for Generation Adidas offers as both a freshman and sophomore, and there was a widely-held belief that Danladi could have been the first player chosen in last year's draft if he had chosen to turn pro after his sophomore season, but he turned down an offer from MLS to return for his junior season at UCLA, and move closer to a degree.
"I thought about it, and went through it with my family and getting the opportunity to come to the United States I always wanted to pursue my education," The Ghanaian-born striker said. "UCLA is a great school and when I got the opportunity I wanted to make the best out of it. I owe it to myself and to my family back home to finish school. I just wanted to go to college and get close to my degree and I am now."
Danladi was expected to be the top star on a stacked UCLA squad in 2016, but nagging injuries limited his playing time and effectiveness and raised questions about his durability and toughness. They were questions Heath wasn't shy about confronting Danladi with when interviewing him.
"The only issue people thought about was the season he just had, when he had a lot of niggling injuries," Heath said. "We spoke about that when we interviewed him, and I was right in his face and let him know this isn't Santa Barbara, this isn't L.A. You're coming to Minnesota and I need to know from you that you want to come."
Heath liked what he heard, and so did Danladi, who was made well aware of Heath's reputation of working well to teach and train attacking players, having been a star forward in England. Heath's passion left Danladi impressed and hopeful they would work together, but with so many trade rumors swirling, Danladi wasn't sure if it would happen and didn't find out he would be chosen first in Friday's MLS draft until he heard Don Garber announce his name.
"Being around all the meetings and being around Minnesota's coaching staff, and Adrian, was huge," Danladi told Goal. "He's a really passionate guy, and with his reputation in the league for developing players like me as forwards, it didn't matter what pick they had. I knew I would love to play for him. I wanted to play for him and I knew it was his decision to make. I showed him what I can do, and he knows I have more to show."
The New York Red Bulls shocked MLS with the trading of Dax McCarty on Monday, and you could consider it part of a youth movement for the club. Sources tell Goal the Red Bulls are also planning on signing Michigan goalkeeper Evan Louro and Ohio State fullback Andrew Lombard to homegrown player deals.
One player who Red Bulls fans would have expected to be signed to a homegrown player deal by now is Akron playmaker Adam Najem. One of the best midfielders in college soccer, Najem was offered a contract by the club after the 2015 college season, but passed on what sources say was a minimum salary offer. The Red Bulls want to sign Najem and have him join the squad for preseason, but as of last week, the sides appeared far apart on the size of a deal.
Najem is in a unique situation because his MLS rights are currently owned by the Red Bulls by virtue of the contract offer made a year ago. Normally, a team would have to sign a homegrown prospect who has finished their college eligibility by a set deadline before the MLS combine, which would then allow the player to go into the draft if the team chose not to make him an offer. The Red Bulls had not made a renewed offer to Najem as of last week, but had left the door open for him to sign his original offer. Whether that happens will be up to Najem, who could choose to pursue options abroad, or with an NASL or USL team.
The Chicago Fire have one of the best collections of homegrown player prospects in the league, but won't be tapping into it this winter. Sources tell Goal Indiana University center back Grant Lillard and North Carolina standouts Cam Lindley and Mauricio Pineda will not be signed to homegrown deals with the Fire this winter. Lindley and Pineda are coming off outstanding freshmen seasons at UNC. Lillard's return to Indiana was a bit more surprising. The 6-foot-4 junior was one of the best defenders in the nation, but the Fire determined he was better served playing another year of college soccer before turning pro.
BEST REMAINING DRAFT OPTIONS
The final two rounds of the MLS draft will take place on Tuesday and while 44 players are already off the board, there is some good talent still available.
Here is a look at some of the top talent still on the board:
NAZEEM BARTMAN. The South Florida forward boasts a good combination of size and speed, but his status as an international player (he's South African) hurt his draft stock in the early rounds.
CHRISTIAN THIERJUNG. The University of California midfielder/forward boasts good attacking qualities, including a deft passing touch and nose for goal, but a quiet MLS combine cost him.
CHRIS NANCO. The Syracuse winger/forward actually showed well at the combine, but slipped out of the first two rounds anyway.
ANDREW WHEELER-OMIUNU. The Harvard defensive midfielder had a solid MLS combine, but didn't do enough to convince scouts he was better than some of the products from the traditional college powers.
MATEJ DEKOVIC. The Charlotte left back was easily the best left back at the combine, but his status as an international player (Croatian) led to him slipping anyway. Several teams came away impressed from the combine, which should help him go early in the third round.
MIKE DEGRAFFENREIDT. Despite the foreign-sounding name, DeGraffenreidt is a versatile American defender who just might be the best remaining right back prospect, even though he spent more time in central defense at Louisville.
RUSSELL CICERONE. The University of Buffalo defender had a quiet MLS combine, which was something he couldn't afford coming from a small school. Still, those who scouted him in PDL play know he's a player.
AUDEN SCHILDER. The 6-foot-5 Washington goalkeeper missed the combine, but plenty of scouts consider him good enough to have been taken in the first two rounds.